Published June 12, 2012 | By Robert LaHoff

There are a handful of plants that I refer to as my “Go To” plants. These are plants that solve problems, create drama in the garden, add texture to almost any setting and get you out of a bind if you are stuck with a solution. Plants that appear to be bulletproof…. they seem to work anywhere. This spring, at our garden center, there is one plant that has out performed more than any other in sales…. Hakonechloa!

Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa, has long been a favorite of mine for its graceful texture and explosive colors. First found growing in the wild in Hakone, a region of Japan, these dwarf grasses have always seemed to be a staple in shade gardens for gardeners who know the plant. Hakonechloa macra, broken down, comes from Hakone (a region of Japan), chloa, (Greek for grass), and macra (meaning large). Most Japanese forest Grass takes up a footprint of only 2-3 feet.

Misunderstood by many as a plant that is only shade tolerant, I have seen Japanese Forest Grass dispel that myth in a private garden in Nutley, New Jersey. Thousands of liner plants fill a hillside here, in full sun, and do extraordinary well. A Richard Hartlage design brought to life by A. Scheppe Landscaping in Summit, New Jersey, this garden still has my attention after all these years. In addition, my brother-in-law has several at his house in dry hot sun doing well too. Clumps of undulating foliage suspended upon bamboo-like stems define this small wonder. Used in planters, as a garden border, around and under large specimen trees in mass plantings or simply as a punctuation mark in your perennial beds, Japanese Forest Grass works anywhere.

There are several cultivars of this small grass available to gardeners today and all have their merits. As I said earlier, this is a plant that has been outperforming more than any other plant in our garden center this year. And the specific variety that has done that is Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’. A brilliant golden grass we coupled with Salvia ‘May Night’, a strong flowering purple selection, and the results were dramatic. ‘All Gold’ is a beacon and could be seen in your backyard from your front yard. ‘Albo-striata’ is a white striped form said to be even more sun tolerant than others and a bit faster growing. ‘Aureola’ is one of the most popular. Brilliant yellow leaves with green stripes and tawny-pink fall color define this graceful gem. ‘Naomi’ has creamy-yellow and green leaves in the spring and summer and reddish-purple markings in the fall. ‘Nicolas’ has solid green tones in the earlier part of the year and finishes strong with oranges and reds in the autumn. ‘Beni-kaze’, translates to “Red Wind”, is aptly named for its varying shades of red in the fall. ‘Sunny Delight’ is a new comer with the reverse markings of ‘Aureola’… green blades with yellow streaks. Finally, ‘Stripe it Rich’ is a white striped, golden leaved one that is interesting enough to list, but not one of my top 5 picks for Forest Grass.

All of these varieties of Forest Grass, ideally, prefer moist, well-drained soil… what plant doesn’t? Appreciating protection from strong winds, Hakonechloa, is also DEER RESISTANT! As with any plant, be mindful to water regularly Forest Grass for the first year. Hakonechloa can drop its leaves in colder climates and die back to the ground. Clean up the old leaves in the spring to make way for its new growth. Easily propagated by division, I would wait a few years after your plants have been established to divide your plants. Dense rhizomatous clusters of roots make this process an easy and forgiving one. Finally, be patient for these grasses to establish. Once they grip into your soil however, you are home free.

I believe Japanese Forest Grass looks its best as it cascades down slopes, hangs over rock walls and is used to soften the edges of hard walkways. Truly a versatile plant that will thrive in dappled shade to full sun and handle moist and dry locations. This plant will breed life to your garden floor or raised containers. An added bonus is the “tiny, inconspicuous, reddish-brown flower spikelets that appear in airy clusters from late summer thru early fall” (perennialresource.com). The papery thin, flexible foliage has a distinct rustling sound when the wind blows. Consider pairing Hakonechloa with the likes of some darker colored Heuchera’s… you won’t be disappointed!

Posted in Garden Tips